(Illustration by Oksana Badrak)

Weed Whackers

Things have gotten crazy violent in the dark, dense forests of California’s Mendocino County, where pot growers from Mexico run elaborate plantations they’ll defend to the death. Damon Tabor saddles up with Sheriff Tom Allman, head of a helicopter-riding, rifle-toting paramilitary strike force determined to take back the woods.

Damon Tabor

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Down in the draw, shadows swallowed footing, and the big deputy behind me carrying a heavy M14 stumbled and slipped and nearly toppled over. Unseen but heard, a California Air National Guard surveillance plane buzzed overhead. We halted in a meadow bright with moonlight; a game warden with a brushy mustache and a 12-gauge shotgun took cover by a Douglas fir. Another man, wearing a balaclava and carrying an M4 assault rifle painted with what appeared to be a cannabis leaf, crouched behind a scrub oak. An earpiece crackled. We crept back into the woods, and the trail grew steep. In the darkness, we felt our way forward like blind men in a new room.

A pot plant growing on public land
A BLM ranger inspecting a growers' camp
Members of the Full Court Press raid team, just after dawn
Sheriff Tom Allman
Short-hauling team members out of the woods


As the sky turned violet, there were signs of other men: a can of salsa, a camping cup, the smell of shit. Farther on we saw four black hoses running from a tarp-lined pit into the woods like snakes from a pond—the growers’ water source. It was now full morning, and we stopped. “I’ve raided gardens where they were still drunk on Patrón at 9 a.m.,” the man in the balaclava whispered. “They didn’t hear us coming.” We moved down a hill, then back up. And here, finally, were the marijuana plants: hundreds of them, scattered over the south face of a hill, dazzling green in the morning light. They were no taller than a man’s knee, with buds the size of bottle caps. The man in the balaclava pointed to a path winding into the manzanita. “It’s their camp,” he hissed. Then he charged into the trees with his M4 raised, screaming, “Policía! Policía!

Several hours earlier, I had set out in the dark with a dozen cops from the Mendocino County SWAT team and various other branches of law enforcement, on a mission to raid a large marijuana-growing operation concealed on public land near Northern California’s Mendocino National Forest. Tough, stout men, they were equipped like Navy SEALs—night-vision goggles, Kevlar vests, assault rifles—but more accustomed to busting down doors than running covert ops. As we moved forward, many chugged liked steam engines over the forest’s corrugated terrain. Sending lawmen out on nighttime wilderness raids to reclaim public lands was a recent escalation in the war on drugs—and not a particularly safe one, considering the armed and dangerous quarry.

According to Forest Service officials, White House drug reports, and articles published everywhere from right-wing blogs to The New York Times, well-armed Mexican drug gangs were cultivating illegal pot farms on public land across California—many reputedly tied to bloody groups like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. According to many of these same sources, they had moved north in the wake of 9/11, when tighter security hampered cross-border drug smuggling. In fact, scant evidence exists to support the cartel theory, but there’s no doubt that Mendocino’s woods are full of Mexican growers. They’ve been operating in federally managed forests throughout California since at least the late 1990s, and though some money and men appear to flow back and forth across the border, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration believes public-land pot farms are run by small, independent Mexican drug gangs based in the U.S., often using illegal immigrants for labor.

These drug-trafficking organizations—DTOs, in DEA lingo—are responsible for much violence and environmental damage in the Golden State’s backcountry. Over the past decade or so, illegal growers in various parts of the state have taken Bureau of Land Management biologists hostage and fired on hikers and sheriff’s deputies. According to media reports, they’ve also fired on park rangers, game wardens, and kayakers. In 2010, more than 4.5 million marijuana plants were grown on federal land, the vast majority of them in California. The crop was worth approximately $11 billion on the street—the annual GDP of a midsize former Soviet satellite state.

In no place is the situation worse than around the Mendocino National Forest, which is home to probably dozens of illegal pot farms at any given time. Long and narrow like a giant chile pepper, the “Mendo” contains almost a million undefended acres that abound with readily accessible water, south-facing slopes, and good roads and nearby highways for easy transport. In 2010, authorities found huge quantities of marijuana in the environs around Mendocino County—which encompasses a large swath of the forest, BLM land, Indian reservations, and towns like Willits, Ukiah, and Fort Bragg—than the DEA found in more than 35 other states combined: over half a million plants worth nearly $1.5 billion.

The potential for so much profit has made the backcountry contested territory, with growers menacing deer hunters and firing warning shots at ranchers. In 2006, Robert Corey Want and Ivan Tillotson, Jr., two members of a local Native American tribe, were shot to death by Mexican growers cultivating a pot farm on the tribe’s reservation. Two years later, in Lake County (which covers part of the Mendocino forest), a county supervisor named Rob Brown discovered two acres of hidden gardens—including one that had been booby-trapped with sharp punji sticks—scattered about his 300-acre property.

Many fearful locals have simply abandoned long-cherished trails and camping spots, and deadly firefights between growers and Mendocino cops have increased. In July 2010, a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a 24-year-old grower named Angel Hernandez-Farias during a raid in the woods. Three weeks later, Mendocino deputies raided another remote garden and killed a grower wielding a rifle. Two more growers were killed during raids in nearby counties that summer, an unprecedented level of violence in what had once been a peaceable enclave of hippies, pear farmers, and mountain recluses.

In August 2010, long-latent civic fury spilled into the open at a county board of supervisors meeting that took place in Covelo, a tiny hardscrabble town bordering the Mendocino forest and itself notorious for producing prodigious amounts of pot. A fish-and-game commissioner named Paul Trouette, who’d just spent three days in the woods, reported seeing “carloads of Hispanic cartel-type vehicles flooding the roadways.” A store owner claimed the forest was under “armed foreign invasion.” Two ranchers and a teacher said growers had shot at them. Shaking with rage, another rancher demanded that supervisors declare a state of emergency and use the National Guard to clear the forest, a move without precedent in U.S. history.

“It’s an occupation,” said the rancher, Chris Brennan. “I’ve been shot at. They’re wiping out our deer. They’re poisoning the bears. We might as well change the name to Cartel National Forest.”

Facing a near revolt, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, a shrewd, gregarious man not immune to the warm glow of media attention, pledged to wage war in his own forest during the 2011 summer growing season. Not long after the Covelo meeting, Allman was knocking on politicians’ doors in Washington to secure money and material for the largest anti-pot operation in California history. Full Court Press, as he dubbed it, would harness the might of the nation’s massive drug-eradication apparatus: 300 police officers, soldiers, and agents from the DEA, the BLM, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Forest Service, six local sheriff’s offices, and more than a dozen other agencies; a squadron of Black Hawk helicopters and surveillance planes; satellite imagery and intelligence analysts; and a gauntlet of roving patrols to catch any growers foolish enough to try to flee the long arm of Mendocino’s sheriff.

“It’s high noon,” Allman told me when I met him at the start of operations, in July 2011. “We’re tired of losing our tourism dollars, tired of losing our hunters, tired of losing our natural resources, our water and wildlife. These people are shitting in our backyard. We’re going to kick ass.”

Sheriff Allman has a respectable paunch, a cop mustache, and eyes like blue sea glass. He’s been a lawman for 31 years and an elected official for six, conducting Mendocino’s police business from a desk cluttered with massifs of paper and a forearm-size artillery shell. A framed photograph of the cast of The Untouchables hangs on his office wall, signed by Kevin Costner. Allman, 51, is more like Sean Connery’s street-smart beat cop, however. He’s a tough, smart guy who’s been around: he served as a police trainer in Kosovo during the nineties, and unlike most police officers, he likes to quote Voltaire.

Also unlike most police officers, Allman doesn’t think all pot growing is bad. Among his more creative acts is a program he devised in 2009 to put the sheriff’s stamp of approval on the growing of certain kinds of marijuana on private land. The rationale for his plan dated back to 1996, when Californians passed Proposition 215, which allowed residents to cultivate and possess pot for medical use. The law lets each county set its own standards about how much is permissible, and Mendocino’s were liberal: 25 plants for anyone with a doctor’s recommendation and 99 for a medical cooperative. (Then as now, the feds still considered the drug illegal.) But Allman went further. In his plan, any grower with a doctor’s note was permitted to buy numbered zip ties from the sheriff’s office. The ties were affixed to the base of the plants, giving deputies an easy way to tell legitimate operations from otherwise. And in Mendocino, there was a lot of otherwise.

After Prop 215 passed, California’s medical-marijuana market morphed into a complex farrago of doctor-sanctioned growers, tillers who had a doctor’s note to grow but sold some of their product on the black market, and clandestine farmers operating wholly outside the law. In 2005, a local paper in Mendocino estimated that marijuana cultivation accounted for about two-thirds of the regional economy—some $1.5 billion a year. With the right wind, I could smell the skunky-sweet tang of the county’s most lucrative crop wafting over my hotel balcony in Ukiah, Mendocino’s county seat.

In Allman’s thinking, the zip ties imposed some order on the chaos: small growers operating in accordance with county law were brought into the open, which freed his department to focus on serious crime and larger, illegal operations. “Twenty-five plants and we don’t even land a helicopter,” Allman told me at his office in Ukiah. “I know Republicans—who would vote for Nixon if he were alive—who have 25 plants in their yard.”

It was a tricky position for a man with a badge. Allman was licensing some growers while launching a massive paramilitary assault on others, a contorted enforcement strategy probably adopted by no other lawman in the U.S. (In the fall of 2011, following a DEA raid on a prominent local cooperative and legal threats against the county from the U.S. attorney, Allman stopped selling zip ties to the 99-plant cooperatives.) For him, though, the line was clear: the real enemy was in the woods.

“This isn’t medical marijuana,” Allman told me. “This is public land. We have fifth-generation tourists telling us they won’t come here because the forests aren’t safe. I go shopping at night and see people with multiple grocery carts full of refried beans, tortillas, and rice. These are not locals. They came for one reason: to make their million dollars. Do they give it a second thought to leave their garbage or use pesticides to make their marijuana bigger? They don’t, because to them this is just a place to grow.”

Not long after talking with Allman, I met John Pinches, a rancher from nearby Laytonville and a Mendocino County supervisor. Pinches, 60, is bald, round like a snowman, and partial to belt buckles the size of salad plates. Politically conservative, he favors legalization but views the forest growers as a scourge. As a supervisor, he proposed a ban on the transporting of supplies like plastic irrigation tubing—critical for remote pot gardens—into the Mendocino forest. Manned checkpoints would enforce the ban and, in his reckoning, eliminate 90 percent of illegal growing. The idea had received a lukewarm reception by the Forest Service, Pinches told me. His view was that the agency didn’t want to invest the manpower.

“They’re sitting on their butts in their shiny green pickups, not out in the forest,” he said. “This is about your local citizenry—pot grower, metalworker, or bartender—taking back our national forest. We’ve had enough.”

Criticism of the Forest Service is common in this area. Most clandestine pot is grown on the agency’s land, but the service, undermanned and underfunded, is not equipped to adequately patrol its own territory or run backwoods enforcement operations. In 2009, agency officials ham-handedly warned visitors to “hike out quickly” if they encountered campers with tortillas and Tecate beer who were listening to Spanish-language music—because they might be armed marijuana growers.

Not surprisingly, Forest Service officials say they’re making a serious effort. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure we’re putting bodies toward the biggest issue—and the biggest issue here in California is marijuana,” Scott Harris, the special agent in charge of the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest region, told me right before a cops-only Full Court Press meeting in Ukiah.

“If you go back four years, we probably had half the staff on the Mendocino that we have now,” said Lee Johnson, the forest’s district ranger. “We’re starting to become more concerned, and law enforcement was really beefed up to address the marijuana issue.”

Pinches wasn’t the only fed-up local. Several days later, in the café of Ukiah’s Safeway, I met with Paul Trouette, the fish-and-game commissioner who had warned county supervisors of seeing “cartel-type activity” in the forest. Stocky and lank haired, Trouette ran a local juice-and-coffee bar and had recently formed a volunteer group to clean up old marijuana gardens in Mendocino’s backcountry.

A 50,000-plant pot farm—unheard-of a decade ago but common now—is an environmental bomb. Illegal forest growers raze acres of trees and siphon enormous volumes of water. They spray plants with toxic pesticides and lace the land with arsenic-based bait to kill off bud-munching animals. Restoring each site costs an average of $15,000, an expense borne by taxpayers.

So far, Trouette and his 15 volunteers had reclaimed two remote sites in the Mendocino forest, bagging up nearly half a ton of garbage, gardening gear, and camping equipment and airlifting it out with a helicopter. But Trouette’s group differs from most conservation outfits in one important respect: they carry assault rifles. Several volunteers are ex-cops, and there’s a hazmat expert and a booby-trap specialist on the team. Trouette said local authorities support his efforts. I asked what would happen if they encountered a well-armed gang of growers.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we’re some vigilante group,” he said. “We recon trash sites.” But, Trouette acknowledged, “we’ve had standoffs. We’re not looking for that, but we’re not backing down. This is our land. We want to be able to take our families out and recreate on it. We want our fish to be there. We want our deer to be there. We are not taking this any longer. If you’re in this country illegally, wonderful, enjoy it. But if you’re committing felonies and intimidating us, be sure that you will be engaged one way or the other.”

Several groups like his are operating in Mendocino’s forest, Trouette said, and they are “taking care of the situation.” Then he scanned the Safeway suspiciously. “Every illegal alien here is probably connected somewhere,” he said. Most of the shoppers appeared to be husky mothers towing small shoals of children. An elderly woman sat at the table next to us with her grandchild. “It’s sketchy,” Trouette said. “I could be gunned down right on the roadside.”

To accompany a Full Court Press team on a night raid, I rode with a sheriff’s deputy to the Golden Ram, a sprawling hunting ranch bordering the Mendocino forest. It was well after midnight when we pulled into an open field jammed with police cruisers. An encampment of military tents, Porta Potties, and a truck-size generator was set up at the field’s far edge. In the headlights of a sheriff’s SUV, a dozen cops in camo and Kevlar filled CamelBaks and chambered rounds into M4s. Several others studied maps of the site, which had been pinpointed using aerial flyovers and satellite imagery. Most were from the Mendocino SWAT team—meaty, mustachioed, well armed—but a BLM ranger with a floppy jungle hat would act as the group’s navigator. Off to one side stood the man in the balaclava.

“You guys know about that pink shit they’re putting in the water, right?” a SWAT cop asked. “You’re dead within a half hour.”

“What’s the pink stuff?” I asked.

“Deadly,” he replied. “It’s coming out of Mexico. If you see a lot of dead animals, stay away.”

“Las manos arriba,” another cop said. “That’s all I got to remember.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Show me your hands.”

Soon we set out in a five-truck convoy, kicking up clouds of dust so thick that the vehicle in front was invisible except for the dim wink of brake lights. I rode with Mike Davis, a sergeant with the sheriff’s office, and a 92-pound police dog named Dutch. The dog’s exploits were legendary. Dutch had once been stabbed in the throat with a sharp stick while subduing a marijuana grower.

“The guys we deal with are the lowest rung on the ladder,” he explained as we bumped along. “They come out here in early spring and they’re guerrilla growing. Their boss’ll show up once a week in a minivan—nice new cowboy hat and chrome-toed boots—and there’ll be a designated time and place. He’ll pull over and throw things out while his guys jump out of the brush and grab the tortillas and eggs. These guys are really athletic. They’ll have a several-mile circuit of mini-grows and multiple camps within that circuit.

“What we’ve done since I’ve been a cop is buzz them with a helicopter and give them time to bug out,” Davis continued. “Then you drop in and whack-and-stack the plants. The public is telling us, ‘We want our public lands back.’ Well, going after these guys is dangerous. You bump into someone at close range in the manzanita and they swing around with an AK-47—you don’t have much time to figure out if he’s not going to shoot you because you’re a police officer.”

The convoy soon pulled off the road. The men piled out, checked rifles, and flicked on night-vision goggles. The plan was to follow a trail over several miles of rugged, descending terrain to reach two marijuana gardens on BLM land bordering the Mendocino forest. After reconning the site, the raid team would move in before sunrise and arrest the growers. If all went well, no one would get shot. When it was over, the raid team would be short-hauled out of the woods in pairs, an extraction technique that involves dangling from a cable beneath a helicopter.

One issue remained: despite the advance intelligence work, no one knew how many growers there were—or how well armed they might be. “If something happens, become the ground,” whispered Bob Farrell, the game warden with the shotgun.

The men moved slowly down the trail. The forest was strangely perfumed, like an incense-heavy chapel, and in the moonlight I could make out the silhouettes of tall pines and Douglas firs. The National Guard plane flew high overhead, tracking our movement. Scrabbling down a steep ravine, the deputy behind me slipped on a slick knuckle of rock. Then I felt his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t give us away,” he whispered, pointing at the orange light on my audio recorder.

Two hours later, the sky above the trees had turned the color of milk. The trunks of manzanitas, ruffled like prom dresses, were visible. When we finally found the camp, I braced myself for gunfire, but none came. It quickly became obvious that the growers had disappeared into the forest.

Soon, walking around the deserted camp, I saw that the inhabitants had lashed cheap sleeping bags to tree trunks to make raised beds. Food wrappers, cigarette packs, and cooking pans littered the ground. Wet tortillas and eggs rotted in a mesh pouch tied to a tree. Balaclava Man pulled back a blanket from one of the beds and a plump brown rat scurried out, dropped to the ground, and ran into the underbrush. Another lay nearby, its head crushed in a metal trap.

Everything here had been hauled in by men, a grim march over miles of rugged terrain that culminated in a six-month gig on a squalid patch of ground, there to water weeds. The occupants, judging the camp unworthy of defense, would be back, either here or somewhere else: clandestine growers often returned to the same sites time after time.

The BLM ranger jotted something in his notebook and kicked over a fertilizer bucket. Then we walked down the trail to meet the helicopter. “They got spooked,” a cop said as we waited on a nearby hillside. The men were sprawled in the dirt, their gear in messy piles. A SWAT member grumbled about overtime. Another complained about his back.

Nearly all the pot plants had been left standing, though members of a whack-and-stack team—mostly seasonal hires—were said to be short-hauling in later. Before long I could hear the beat of the helicopter’s rotors. It came in low and hovered overhead, blowing the manzanitas flat and ferrying out the men and Dutch, now muzzled and looking displeased. When my turn came, I hooked into the steel cable and held on tight as the forest dropped beneath my boots.

Soon after the raid, I drove to the county airport in Ukiah to ride along on a Full Court Press pot-spotting run. As I pulled in, a Black Hawk helicopter scythed off toward dun-colored hills, and a military-green Kiowa was warming up on the tarmac. The pilot, Josh McMinn, a young ginger-haired chief warrant officer with the California National Guard, had flown two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He and his copilot, Captain Pete Faeth, were accomplished spotters, though McMinn had the more expert eye. As we took off and zipped over Ukiah, he pointed out pot gardens below.

“There’s a 215 grow,” he shouted, using shorthand for medical marijuana. Twenty plants sat nestled in a clearing of brush and scrub oak, tall as Christmas trees and lined up in fussy rows. Farther on, McMinn pointed out some stoner’s personal patch, nestled behind a ranch house, then a cluster tucked among a vineyard’s trellises. Minutes later we circled over a timber company’s property. An entire hillside had been shorn of trees, leaving bare and scorched-looking earth pocked with about 20 plants resembling scabrous hair implants. From high up, Mendocino seemed overrun.

McMinn thought he’d spotted a clandestine garden during a previous mission, and we headed north to find it. The helicopter’s shadow slid over the forest as wind whipped through the doorless Kiowa. Faeth murmured approvingly at a ridgeline trail. During a recent operation, he had stowed his mountain bike in the back of a Chinook to slip off and bang down some singletrack.

“Little bit of G here,” said McKinn, putting the helicopter into a hard turn parallel to the ground. Then he gestured below. At first I saw nothing. Then, like rock outcrops in fog, the plants materialized, verdant blossoms among the forest’s muted colors. It was a professional grow, hundreds of plants expertly hidden amid the trees. More were probably concealed in the surrounding brush.

McMinn kept the Kiowa high, to avoid scaring the growers, and logged the site’s coordinates. Soon, Allman’s raid teams would likely swoop in, adding this garden to Full Court Press’ staggering final tally for summer 2011: 632,058 plants removed from 56 grow sites (significantly more than in the 2010 season), along with 57,000 pounds of trash, 40 miles of irrigation hose, and 38 pistols, assault rifles, and other weapons. Authorities would also arrest 159 growers, nearly all of whom were in the U.S. illegally, and charge them with various marijuana, firearms, and immigration violations.

Once the operation concluded in early August, however, there was a good chance the drug gangs would return to Mendocino’s forest. Or simply move to the next county before getting chased back—what Allman called the ping-pong effect. Mexican DTOs now dominated a segment of the marijuana business previously inhabited by longhairs and other small-timers, bringing capitalist zeal to a seemingly saturation-proof market. They employed scouts, drivers, luncheros (lunchmen) to ferry food and supplies, and armies of trimmers to harvest the crop. They established elaborate base camps, grow sites, and drop-off points for resupply—then spent months dodging police raids and flyovers. Like an entrenched cancer, they thwarted eradication: posting armed guards, planting earlier to avoid police raids. They even tricked plants to flower twice in one season, a bit of horticultural sleight of hand whose precise mechanics mystified law enforcement.

“These guys are growing in places we never anticipated—9,000 feet. It doesn’t even have to be on a south-facing slope,” said Laura Mark, a Forest Service special agent with years of experience investigating pot farms. “They broke the mold. They are also changing their tactics. When we started, they would run like rabbits. The trend now is, not only are they shooting back, they’re posting lookouts and setting up booby traps, some of them to detonate remotely. They’re being told, ‘Guard this at all costs.’ ”

The larger point is this: cultivating marijuana in a place like the Mendocino makes excellent economic sense. Even a mediocre grower can coax a pound of smokeable bud from one plant. At a wholesale rate of about $2,500 per pound, a relatively modest garden with 10,000 plants can gross roughly $25 million. Before night raids, the government deployed helicopters, planes, and heavily armed drug agents. The Forest Service recently dropped $100,000 on two SkySeer UAV drones to detect illegal pot farms. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab built high-tech software that uses GIS data like water location to predict future grow sites. The military has even been brought to bear in numerous states—drug operations being the one exception to the federal Posse Comitatus Act, which bans the military from law enforcement—all to persuade growers to consider less lucrative options. Yet, over the past decade, the amount of marijuana seized on the state’s public lands surged ever higher.

“We have forests, mountains, access to water, Home Depot. It’s just set up for it,” said Brent Wood, a special agent supervisor with California’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement (now called the Bureau of Investigation). “Why would you risk transporting high-grade marijuana across the border when all you have to do is grow it, bring it down to the Central Valley, and hand it off to your distribution network? It makes sense. They’re businessmen.”

These businessmen were also expanding eastward. In June 2008, the Forest Service discovered a megafarm with almost 360,000 plants in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, the largest bust ever carried out on federal land. In 2010, authorities arrested 12 Hispanic growers and eradicated a garden containing 50,000 plants in a Wisconsin forest. An internal Forest Service memo reported that same year that Mexican drug gangs were aggressively expanding operations in both Wisconsin and Michigan, and that the agency’s law-enforcement personnel were “dangerously unprepared” for the coming explosive growth.

On a Forest Service map charting this trend over the past decade, it looks like a strong eastward wind had blown millions of marijuana seeds from California across the country. That wind, if you trace its source, would be the almost 17 million pot smokers in America.

On my last day in California, I went to Fresno to meet the enemy. Though much had been made about the pot growers’ ties to Mexican cartels, neither Sheriff Allman nor Special Agent Wood, who had 15 years’ experience working backcountry pot cases, thought any such connection existed. In Ukiah, Allman had shown me autopsy photos of Angel Hernandez-Farias, the grower killed by his deputy during a raid. Farias’s pale and lifeless body lay on a table, his head turned awkwardly to one side. He had been arrested once before, a felony charge of transporting marijuana. But he also had a young son and worked at a vineyard.

“I don’t think if we gave anyone up here truth serum, they’d say, ‘I’m with the Juárez Cartel,’ ” Allman said. “These are small-time Hispanics brought to America and promised, ‘If you produce a good crop of marijuana, your family will be well compensated.’ ”

Still, much about how these gangs operate remained mysterious. Hoping to get a clearer picture, I arranged to meet a former member of a drug ring called the Magaña family. At their height in 2000, the Magañas—a network of relatives, in-laws, and associates primarily based in Fresno—operated the largest marijuana-growing operation on public land in California: an army of 100 mostly undocumented workers, stash houses with AK-47’s in the windows, and some 20 gardens in national forests from Los Padres to Mendocino. They were also involved in meth production.

The investigation to take down the Magañas, headed by Wood, spanned three years and was the first major case against a criminal organization cultivating marijuana on federal land—backcountry pot’s patient zero. It involved recorded phone calls, undercover drug buys, anonymous informants, and aerial surveillance. “Task forces were formed because of that case,” Wood said.

Inside the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement’s featureless one-story building in Fresno, I followed Isaias Rivera, a special agent with a shaved head and an elaborate arm tattoo, into an empty conference room. Rivera would help translate—a diversion from his usual duties, which recently had included posing as a hit man to snare a prison guard wishing to have his girlfriend killed. Soon a man in his late sixties walked into the room. He wore a white Stetson, cowboy boots, and a blue-striped western shirt stretched over an ample gut. He spoke softly. When I asked what he preferred to be called in print, he thought for a moment and said, “Jesús.”

Like many illegal growers in California, Jesús was from Michoacán, a state in southwestern Mexico legendary for marijuana cultivation. Initially, Jesús said, he came to America to make a better life for himself, first working at a vineyard and then ferrying laborers to job sites in a small fleet of station wagons. By 1999, Juan and Jose Luis Magaña, brothers and illegal aliens who ran the family’s drug business, were cultivating pot on public lands across California. The Magañas offered Jesús a job as a lunchero, using his station wagons to ferry food to backcountry drop points. For this he earned about $300 a week. Jesús said he also supplied workers to tend two gardens but refused to work in the forest himself. That first year, Jesús estimated, the Magañas operated some 50 gardens with about 5,000 plants each. That would put the family’s gross revenue for the season at somewhere around $350 million.

“Mucho,” Jesús replied when I asked if he had reservations about entering the drug business. “I knew it was wrong and constantly fought with myself about it. I was broke and didn’t have any money. I told myself if I did pretty good, I would quit in a year.”

Instead of quitting, however, he began transporting pot from drop-off points in the mountains to stash houses around the Central Valley. “I start bringing down the weed and, man, that’s $30,000 I’m making right here,” Jesús said. “This is easy money.” But the Magañas cheated him, Jesús claimed, paying only $15,000. Now hoping to rise in the family’s ranks, he had also begun managing two gardens, one of which was in the Mendo. But after the Magañas sold the pot from Jesús’s gardens that year, they offered only $27,000, far below market value. I asked Jesús whether by this point he’d begun to consider himself a criminal.

“Never in my life did I feel that way,” he replied. “I told myself this was the last time. When they came up with the $27,000, I told myself never again. I was going to get a job like the old days.”

Wood’s team was moving in by then. They had orchestrated undercover drug buys and received crucial information from anonymous sources, including how the family transported drug money to Mexico in the hidden compartment of a car. In August 2000, drug agents raided a Magaña garden in the Sierra National Forest and killed a grower. In September, they took out two more gardens. A month later, Wood’s team moved in and arrested 30 people connected with the Magañas’ operation. They came for Jesús at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, arresting him at his house with $350,000 in cash and 38 pounds of meth.

Jesús spent two years in prison but eventually cooperated with the federal government. Today he’s retired and has four children in the U.S., several others in Mexico, and enough grandchildren that he had difficulty counting them all. Jesús claimed to have left the drug business—mostly.

“I have quite the sun,” Jesús said of his backyard. “So I went to get a permit. They gave me six plants!”

“It’s still illegal with the feds,” Special Agent Rivera said.

“It’s still illegal with the feds,” Jesús agreed, smiling.

The room was quiet for a moment. I asked Jesús whether he thought it would be possible to stop people like the Magañas from growing marijuana on public lands. He paused for several seconds to consider the question.

“To tell you the truth, I see it as impossible,” he replied. Then he thought for a few seconds. “Gente con hambre, todo el tiempo,” he said. Translated, this meant there would always be hungry people looking for food. More figuratively, Rivera explained, what Jesús meant was that growing marijuana in the woods involved so little risk and such great reward that only a fool would walk away.

From Outside Magazine, Jun 2012 Lead Photo: Illustration by Oksana Badrak

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